The late February gloom with volatile weather gradually transforming the once splendid winter landscape into a dirty slushy mess, doesn’t make it an obvious season for traveling around Russia. But since defying the obvious is part of human nature, we decided to take advantage of this year’s 4-day long holiday celebrating the Russian Armed Forces (the Defender of the Fatherland Day, 23rd February) and ventured southwest all the way to Volgograd, better known to most foreigners by its former name, Stalingrad.
The distance between Samara and Volgograd is about 810 km and we chose to do it in one go. We’re not new to driving long distances on sometimes challenging Russian roads and we wanted to allow more time to recover from the long ride and for some proper sightseeing once, hopefully, we reach our destination. Except for a few short stops at petrol stations scattered along the road, Saratov situated more or less half way between Samara and Volgograd was our only proper break.
Today’s 16th largest city of Russian Federation was founded around 1509 by tsar Fyodor Ivanovich on the ruins of the former Golden Horde city Ukek as a part of strategy to secure southeastern boundary of his state. Saratov officially received town status only in 1708 but it had grown rapidly over the next decades to eventually become one of the most prominent shipping ports along the Volga and the third largest city of Russia (1912). Strolling around present-day Saratov visitors will still see a few buildings reminiscent of the city’s long gone glory days, such as the Music Conservatory (the first provincial music conservatory after St Petersburg and Moscow), Drama Theatre (one of Russia’s oldest) or Radishchev Art Museum (the first major public art museum after Moscow and St Petersburg).
Since our visit was time constrained and the weather didn’t encourage any extracurricular sightseeing, we didn’t get to explore much but we also found some energy to pop by the Victory Park dedicated to the Second World War that offers some beautiful vistas over the city and the Volga. On our way back we had a chance to see a bit more of the river embankment and cross (by car) the famous Saratov Bridge that beautifully compliments the river panorama.
THE HERO CITY OF STALINGRAD
Most readers will immediately recognize Volgograd by its former name, Stalingrad (1925-1961), which the city is still allowed to use during various annual celebrations. Stalingrad is famous worldwide mainly because of what’s considered the largest (over 2.2 million personnel involved) and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare that took place in the city between 23 August 1942 and 2 February 1943, and arguably played a crucial role in stopping Nazi expansion eastward and in turning the course of the Second World War. With approximately 2 million casualties on both sides and much of the city reduced to rubble, Stalingrad payed a huge price for its bravery, and today’s Volgograd is to a large extent a monument to the courage of the city’s (and not only) population.
Monuments in Mamayev Kurgan.
No one can claim to have seen Volgograd without paying a visit to Mamayev Kurgan – the most prominent hill in the city filled with striking monuments commemorating the battle, which include the 82-meter tall statue of Mother Russia inciting citizens to join in the fight (the Motherland Calls). At the feet of this colossal figure (to date the tallest statue of a woman in the world) there’s a moving memorial space dedicated to the defenders of the city with their names inscribed on the walls and soldiers keeping watch of the eternal fire burning in their memory.
Among numerous tombstones scattered around the Mamayev Kurgan two seem to attract most attention among the visitors – one of them contains the remains of Vasily Zaytsev, a Soviet sniper who during the Battle of Stalingrad killed 225 Axis soldiers. The second tombstone belongs to Vasily Chuikhov, the lieutenant general of the Soviet Army and the Commander of the 62nd Army during the Battle of Stalingrad, who was buried here after his death in 1982.
Looking away from the hill towards the Volga there’s an outline of a football stadium that is being constructed for the 2018 World Cup, an uplifting sight and refreshing reminder that regardless of everything, life goes on.
Another obligatory stop in Volgograd includes the Memorial Complex situated by the Pavlov’s House that gives visitors an idea of the damage caused to the buildings during the battle. The Complex is situated about 3,5 km from the Mamayev Kurgan. We decided to get there by foot but, to be honest, for the most part it wasn’t a very pleasant walk – anyone familiar with the messy state of Russian footpaths caused by the melting snow will quickly understand why. However, once we got to the fairly quiet and dry Sovietskaya Street with elegant and eclectic buildings neatly lined up on both sides, the initial muddy nightmare turned into a truly delightful stroll.
For a ‘’local patriot’’ Volgograd’s Volga embankment doesn’t really compare to the one in Samara but it’s still a very pleasant space with plenty of greenery, fountains and monuments. The nearby area of Sovetskaya Street is also filled with decent restaurants and cafes (we tried Schastye Est and Custom Coffee, both were very good), theaters and shops. Like pretty much everywhere in Russia, there are lots of Lenin’s statues dotted around the city and a few Soviet-style buildings featuring Marx, Engels & co.
Most of the buildings in Old Sarepta were recently renovated but some of them, like this shoe repair point, still have aura of the past around them.
Before hitting the road, upon strong recommendation of a friend originally from Volgograd, we visited the Old Sarepta, a small village turned recently into an open-air museum complex situated some 30 km south of the city. We were warned that due to the tall buildings that popped out like mushrooms around the settlement over the last decades Old Sarepta is impossible to be found without a local guide but clear signposts starting on the main road (possibly a recent initiative) got us there without any trouble. Old Sarepta used to be populated by the Volga Germans who were invited to the area in mid 18th Century by tsaritsa Catherine II in an attempt to boost the crop production in this part of Russia and protect the southern borders from attacks by Kalmyks, Tatars and Kazakhs. Unlike the rest of the city, the village wasn’t affected by the war bombings and today visitors can admire the mostly renovated buildings that host a number of exhibitions attempting to shed some light on the lifestyle of Volga Germans in the area. The principal buildings include the museum, the library with collection of books in German language and the pharmacy and pharmacist’s house. Personally I found the pharmacy most interesting – it’s beautifully decorated with typical household objects from the 18th and 19th century and if you speak Russian, the very friendly guide will tell you all about the lifestyle of people in the area and about different types of local grass and herbs used for treatment of various conditions. The museum, on the other hand, contains a little shop with delicious local specialities including sweet watermelon preserve with cinnamon, traditional gingerbread, Kalmykian tea and excellent mustard produced from locally grown mustard seeds, which used to be the principle crop of the area and the mustard produced here was known throughout the Soviet bloc. Upon reflection, our only regret related to this trip is that we didn’t buy more of that watermelon preserve.